Like most of us, I’m a hypocrite. So, is there a problem?
Get comfortable with accepting you don’t always live your own beliefs through action
‘To be a good Stoic, you have to get comfortable with accepting that you regularly don’t live your own beliefs through action.’
Let’s get something out of the way at the outset: like most of us, I’m a hypocrite. And that, really, shouldn’t be much of a problem. We overemphasise hypocrisy; we give it more weight in considering a point than we should. If a GP who smells of cigarettes tells you that you need to quit smoking, it might be hypocritical, but it’s true nonetheless and the point is still worth listening to. We generally focus too much on who the speaker is, and not enough on what they’re saying.
This, I think, mostly comes down to our inherent psychology of fairness, which is more occupied by whether someone has the right to say something to us than whether what they’re saying is true. To be a good Stoic, you have to get comfortable with accepting that you regularly don’t live your own beliefs through action.
I’ve written a lot about it in this column – if you read it regularly, you might be weary of my love for Seneca. But he and the other Stoics got so much right. And in a world where truth and personal fortitude seem decreasingly important and their definitions become fluffier, Stoicism is a philosophy that refocuses responsibility on the individual, and allows us to feel empowered to take control of our own lives where we can.
Seneca understood that one of the most central challenges to being a good Stoic – if not the most central one – is monitoring our own inherent hypocrisy. It isn’t enough to know and accept that we can’t always meet our own standard, because this might allow us to feel justified in ceasing to try. We need to be receptive to hard truths, and reject the impulse to deflect them.
Stoicism encourages us not to get trapped in the vortex of everydayness; not to become mindlessly devoted to the plodding pace of routine to the point that we forget the bigger picture – death. That sounds rather glum, but don’t worry (Stoics don’t believe in worrying).
The closeness of death reminds us of the brevity of life
Seneca says, “What man can you show me who places any value on his time, who reckons the worth of each day, who understands that he is dying daily...the major portion of death has already passed. Whatever years lie behind us are in death’s hands.” This should liberate rather than frighten us. When someone very close to you dies, along with the horrors of grief, you often find that your priorities realign in a way that can feel strangely emancipatory. The closeness of death reminds us of the brevity of life.
As a result, the cantankerous email from your boss just seems far less important, and you might be spurred to finally leave a bad relationship or change a job you hate. The urgency to actively live your life becomes briefly more powerful than your fear of change, and you can wear your mortality like armour against the everyday nonsense that most of us stay tangled in.
Remember you will die
What Seneca says above entreats us to focus on the present and to realise that we can change the things about ourselves and our lives that make us unhappy, or that we are not proud of. This is why the Stoics like a memento mori – a symbolic depiction of the inevitability of death, usually represented by a skull. It translates to “remember you will die”. I have one on my kitchen wall, to remind me each morning that I’m not getting this day back, so I shouldn’t feck it up.
And yes, I’m a hypocrite. I waste time regularly. I worry about stupid things like whether my hair looks weird when I’m walking across a windy bridge. But the important thing is to remember, in spite of our imperfections, that this is temporary. All of it. How your body feels now is not how it will always feel. If it hurts now, the time will come when it hurts more, so appreciate it. There is not infinite time to change the aspects of your life that don’t make sense or make you miserable.
Each moment and day you give to something you don’t find meaningful is lost forever, and this is no less true because I lose valuable time to looking at Instagram on the loo.